Full circle: or Mary Berry, Nathan Filer – and me

Education – I have spent most of my life involved in it in some way, but after a six-year stint (including on-the-job training) to become a qualified graduate librarian (that was then, they do things a bit more quickly now) and a double dose of parenting, I didn’t anticipate being a consumer in the system, well not the mainstream system anyway.

So what changed? Well to echo many a song lyric, I’ve always thought life was for learning, and since giving up voluntary work (lots to learn there!) I’ve been aware of a big gap that just sitting here writing didn’t seem to fill, however much it was my raison d’etre.  Adding a handful of new interests – singing – dancing – calligraphy – was fun but still not quite doing it for me.  The trouble was there didn’t seem to be anything I really wanted, or needed,  to learn.

Corsham Court
Corsham Court – not just any campus

It was only after talking to a Bath Spa Creative Writing graduate – and then listening to a talk by another, that I realised the answer might be staring me in the face. So after a hurried application, a few phone calls and an interview in the disconcertingly magnificent Corsham Court (not to worry, uni wing a bit more ordinary!)  here I am off to start my educational life all over again.

Yes, I shall finally answer the question of whether or not creative writing can be taught by trying it out for myself. In fact I always thought it was the wrong question, i.e. not about teaching but about learning. Everyone who wants to write has to learn and we all do it in different ways at different times, sometimes by ourselves but in my case mostly with the help of other people, sometimes by soaking up someone else’s work, sometimes by simply being told what works and what doesn’t.  Horses for courses and sometimes these courses change. A year ago if you had asked me if I wanted a creative writing degree, I would have said ‘why’? Now my answer would be ‘why not?’

Of course I have all kinds of qualms. Not least I am fearful for my WIP. Making it a better book is one of my primary aims and I intended to take a break from it for a few months anyway. But now that these few months are going to involve new people, new ideas, perhaps new writing models, will it stand up to the test? I feel my characters shuffling their feet in impatience. Why can’t she just get on with it?! Of course the impatience is actually mine, but I know full well that some proving time is required before I bash on (and bashing on is a crucial part of the degree, especially towards the end.)

Bath Spa graduate Nathan Filer


Which brings me to Mary Berry (on WDYTYA last night) who trained at Bath Spa when it was the Bath School of Home Economics. As for Nathan, we all know what happened to him!

And there are lots more graduates – some good friends among them – who can testify to a good experience at Bath Spa.

All in all, I can expect to be in good company.

So roll on my second (or is it third?) stab at student life.

Bags first at the bar!





Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?


Soon I’ll be looking at my rough first draft and deciding just where to go next with it. Soon I may even be doing something completely different (in which case you will surely hear) but right now I’m in a bit of a limbo, a limbo that’s actually much needed. I need a limbo to get some dull but necessary jobs done – tax forms (tick), bank statements (tick), floor-washing  as well as some nicer jobs that have been neglected – from brushing up some flash fiction (for our Books are My Bag day) to weeding the garden  and picking blackberries (sorry, brambles in my native language).

Authors Electric

Authors Electric

But probably the most useful thing I’ve done is to apply to join the Authors Electric blogging collective  and it’s my great good fortune to have been accepted to the team of 28 (each of whom blogs on one day in the month). I’ve been a fan of team blogs for quite a while and you may remember I was a contributor to Love a Happy Ending  until they changed their modus operandi and of course take my turn at Bristol Women Writers.  Now I’m really thrilled to be with Authors Electric because it’s great company to be in. I often go over there to catch up on posts, and am a fan of several of the writers:  Catherine Czerkawska is on there as is Chris Longmuir and I’m looking forward to getting to know the others.   As well as the obvious advantages (a blog that’s updated daily, but I blog for just one of those days – more exposure, less effort!) the members also share tips and information across social media, so there will be lots to do and learn.

I’ll be posting links to my Author Electric blogs here and in the usual places and will, I hope, keep this blog going too. Meanwhile I hope you’ll visit my new home where I’m already listed on the team for the 22nd of each month.

Looks like my limbo period is  coming to an end already.





A close shave, or how I nearly wrote the wrong book

While writing the WIP (yes, first draft may be finished but much progress still to be made) I’ve been plagued by the question of genre. I really only plumped for the novel form because it’s the one I’m familiar with.  At the same time, I was aware of keeping as closely as I could to ‘the facts’ and simply making up the bits I didn’t know, exploring above all else where and how the story ended. But new facts were popping up all the time. If I included them all and filled all the gaps that could be filled, surely it would be non-fiction?

Galileo's Daughter coverNext question – what is narrative non-fiction exactly? My one role model for this was Dava Sobel whose Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter I enjoyed years ago before I took up writing. But my own copies had disappeared and my memories were hazy – what was the balance of exposition, action, dialogue? How much drama is there in a drama-documentary?  It was probably time to read some more NNF, but I somehow had enough other things to do. One thing I did know, if my book turned into non-fiction, it would begin and end with the artefact that frames a big part of the story, a painting that’s still in existence today.

Then, as I pushed and panted towards the end,  turning from time to time to my favourite sources, I stumbled on a footnote I had somehow missed referring to a non-fiction (but not academic) book that sounded intriguing. With a chapter of my rough draft still to write, I banged in an order and the book arrived a couple of days later. I was transfixed. Yes, it was highly readable (is this what they mean by ‘narrative’?) and covered a big proportion of the material I was using, albeit from a different perspective. It added appreciably to my knowledge. Its main focus was the picture in question. I gobbled  up Mr Hill’s Big Picture in unseemly haste. Here was the book I had almost tried to write.

Today I started some clearing out and found Galileo’s Daughter in my bookcase. It had been there all along. Clearly fate had intervened – or did I just not want to find it? I don’t think I’ll be needing it now. But Mr Hill’s Big Picture has been useful in all sorts of ways. The author has been really helpful and shared some of his knowledge of the picture (no longer on public display) with me. Most of all, I know I was right to stick to fiction.




Thoughts on historical and literary fiction: blogging with Jane Davis

Is blogging on the decline? My own target of weekly posts (which I maintained for three years!) has long since gone to the wall and there are very few blogs I return to on a regular basis. I also notice that more and more authors use Facebook or other social media to make useful and informative posts alongside the more ephemeral (!)chit-chat.

I Stopped TimeSomeone who comes into this category is author-publisher Jane Davis whose FB posts are always worth a look and whose  I Stopped Time  – a prize-winning novel touching on the history of photography – I really enjoyed. But I then discovered that as well as an upbeat social media presence, Jane  has a blog with some extremely interesting and thought-provoking interviews with a wide variety of authors.



I’m delighted to say that as of today I have joined their ranks and you can read the interview here. It has some ruminations on historical and literary fiction as well as a plea for the categorisation of fiction. Do take a look and also at Jane’s previous interviewees all of whom have something interesting to say.

Thanks Jane, for the opportunity.


Jane in the ultimate tee-shirt



Events round-up

Writing workshops

Discover14Last autumn I led my first ever writing workshop in Downend library as part of South Gloucestershire Discover Festival. Since then I’ve been involved in other writing events, most recently joining forces with another local writer  Pauline Masurel.

Mazzy and I enjoyed working together so much that we’re teaming up again  for this year’s Discover Festival where we’re running a Get Writing workshop in two different venues.

Discover is such a great idea. There are all kinds of activites on offer at  little or no cost and most of them repeated so that there’s bound to be one close to you. They’re mainly in libraries or sports centres so there are no bus fares or parking charges to worry about either. It’s the prefect chance to try out a new hobby or brush up on an old one.

Our event will be a fun and informal workshop open to anyone who has some writing experience or who would like to make a start. If you have your diary at the ready, here are our dates and times.

  • Downend Library on Tuesday September 30th, 2 – 4pm
  • Bradley Stoke Library on Saturday October 25th, 2 – 4pm

Do look out for the full programme in your local library or check out Discover online where you can book your place.

Books are my Bag

booksmybagOn Saturday October 11th, Bristol Women Writers are joining Southville Writers for a local author showcase in Foyles Cabot Circus to celebrate the ‘Books are my Bag’ day which encourages us all to use our bookshops more.   The event will start at 2 pm and go on until 7 pm, so do pop in if you get the chance and hear some great local writers read and perform their work.




Only connect: sun and chemistry at Lacock

Lacock signResearch can take us to some odd places but a perfect English village on a perfect summer’s day was not a bad result  at Lacock Abbey where I was parked up and fuelled by a stiff Americano before the gates had even  opened for Sunday’s demonstrations of  early photography. Of course I’d visited Lacock before, including once since this whole thing began, but mindsets change, new things become significant and the brain becomes ready to reabsorb some of the detail that it just might have discarded along the way. Revision was long overdue. In fact a lot of what I saw and heard yesterday I did already ‘know’ from previous experience and reading, but seeing things in the round (camera obscura, mousetrap camera, photogenic drawings) always makes a difference, not to mention the vital ingredient – meeting experts and other enthusiasts.

Alex Burnham I had Victorian photographer Alex Burnham (in costume and also in the know) cornered very early on, which was maybe just as well in view of the rising temperatures.

He talked me through what was going on in his mysterious darkroom on wheels, , then it was on to see man-in-hot-blue-tent Richard Cynan Jones who explained the differences in the chemistry of these fab photogenic drawings.


photogenic drawingsIn fact what began as a quick chat became more of a pop-up conference (?) when Richard and I discovered a mutual interest in events in Edinburgh and St Andrews in the 1840s.
At this point I had more or less taken root in front of richard’s tent, with one passer by assuming we were – ahem – an item (!) Oops, sorry about that, Richard, but there’s nothing quite like stumbling on someone who cares about the same things, particularly if they are of no particular significance to the rest of the world!

calotype graphicTime for a lunch/hydration break during which I visited the museum (I particularly like this exhibit – no excuse for forgetting the process now) and amassed a few more questions for Messrs Burnham and Jones.


It was an absolute pleasure to be at Lacock yesterday and I’d like to thank not only Richard and Alex (please check them out, especially if you need a historic photographer any time!) but also the other NT staff and volunteers who set up the day and kept loads of adults and children informed and entertained.

Since seeing the wet collodion process demonstrated back in May, I’m struck more and more by how the medium of photography has been changed by the digital age and it’s good to know that historic processes are, if anything, increasing in popularity. Why? I’ll leave that for a more philosophical moment, but now that I’ve begun to revisit my research sources I think I might use this site to list a few more more of them. No point in keeping it all to myself.

To start the ball rolling here are a few that cropped up after Lacock and also after the Bristol Festival of Photography which somehow failed to get a blog post of its own.

Historic Photographic Processes:

Calotype Process (video reconstruction, Richard Cynan Jones on Lacock FB page)

Making a Salt Print (St Paul’s Photogrphy Centre on Youtube)

Early Photography equipment

Alex Burnham

Michael Schaaf, Wet Collodion Photography

Richard Cynan Jones and on Flickr

Richard Cynan Jones
Richard Cynan Jones









The Physic Garden: too good to dissect

‘The first time I saw Jenny Caddas she was taking a swarm of bees.’

The Physic GardenIt’s a great feeling when you fall in love with a book on the first page, or even the first line, and that’s what happened to me with The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska. The voice is that of William Lang, speaking in 1802. But if the scene he describes is idyllic, we soon know that this is not to last. William, now an old man, is going to tell us how from this fine beginning, everything went wrong. In fact things are already going wrong, because the Physic Garden, owned by Glasgow University and where William will soon be head gardener, is already in decline polluted by the expanding type foundry, trampled on by marauding students (plus ca change!) and largely ignored by a medical faculty hooked on the new science of anatomy. But amongst the professors there is one exception, Thomas Brown, a botany lecturer, with whom William strikes up an unlikely and life-changing friendship.

William’s story is an essentially private one of an old man seeing how in his younger days he was too naïve, but still cannot entirely regret that naivety. But as in the best historical fiction the individual becomes a prism through which we view the whole place and time in which he lived. We feel the pressures on a young man suddenly becoming the bread-winner for his large family, his anger at a feckless sister, his concern over a sickly child, his hero-worship of his fine new friend. On a wider scale we see his disquiet at the apparent supremacy of surgery over physiological remedies and the new forms of sickness and poverty arriving in the wake of industrialisation. We also glimpse the radicalism he will embrace in his later life.

But mostly this is a book about friendship and although the romance hinted at in the first line plays a part, William knows there are more enduring forms of love. He reflects most of all on how he and Thomas Brown forged a bond that transcended social boundaries but broke apart too violently ever to be mended.

The pace is measured, the language has an elegiac quality, but this is not a pretty story. It is beautiful and sad with just a touch of the macabre.  It also contains the seeds of hope and of William’s eventual redemption. True to the form of an old man, our narrator thinks nothing of jumping forward or back in the story to explain something, or just to delay the parts that pain him the most. But this book is all about the voice, and once William had my ear, I was never going to stop listening.

One day I might think about how this book achieves what it does, but for now I’m just going to sit back and admire it.